8. LAKSHMAN JHULA
It was a positive relief to
reach the Gurukul and meet Mahatma Munshiramji, with his giant frame. I
at once felt the wonderful contrast between the peace of the Gurukul and
the din and noise of Hardvar.
The Mahatma overwhelmed me with
affection. The Brahmacharis were all attention. It was here that
I was first introduced to Acharya Ramadevji, and I could immediately see
what a force and a power he must be. We had different viewpoints in several
matters, nevertheless our acquaintance soon ripened into friendship.
I had long discussions with
Acharya Ramadevji and other professors [=people who professed religion]
about the necessity of introducing industrial training into the Gurukul.
When the time came for going away, it was a wrench to leave the place.
I had heard much in praise of
the Lakshman Jhula (a hanging bridge over the Ganges) some distance from
Hrishikesh, and many friends pressed me not to leave Hardvar without having
gone as far as the bridge. I wanted to do this pilgrimage on foot, and
so I did it in two stages.
Many sannyasis called
on me at Hrishikesh. One of them was particularly attracted towards me.
The Phoenix party was there, and their presence drew from the Swami many
We had discussions about religion,
and he realized that I felt deeply about matters of religion. He saw me
bareheaded and shirtless, as I had returned from my bath in the Ganges.
He was pained to miss the shikha (tuft of hair) on my head and the
sacred thread about my neck, and said:
'It pains me to see you,
a believing Hindu, going without a sacred thread and the shikha.
These are the two external symbols of Hinduism, and every Hindu ought to
Now there is a history as to
how I came to dispense with both. When I was an urchin of ten, I envied
the Brahman lads sporting bunches of keys tied to their sacred threads,
and I wished I could do likewise. The practice of wearing the sacred thread
was not then common among the vaishya families in Kathiawad. But
a movement had just been started for making it obligatory for the first
three varnas. As a result several members of the Gandhi clan adopted
the sacred thread. The Brahman who was teaching two or three of us boys
Raksha invested us with the thread, and although I had no occasion
to possess a bunch of keys, I got one and began to sport it. Later, when
the thread gave way, I do not remember whether I missed it very much. But
I know that I did not go in for a fresh one.
As I grew up several well-meaning
attempts were made both in India and South Africa to re-invest me with
the sacred thread, but with little success. If the shudras may not
wear it, I argued, what right have the other varnas to do so? And
I saw no adequate reason for adopting what was to me an unnecessary custom.
I had no objection to the thread as such, but the reasons for wearing it
As a vaishnava I had
naturally worn round my neck the kanthi, and the shikha was
considered obligatory by elders. On the eve of my going to England, however,
I got rid of the shikha, lest when I was bare-headed it should expose
me to ridicule and make me look, as I then thought, a barbarian in the
eyes of the Englishmen. In fact this cowardly feeling carried me so far
that in South Africa I got my cousin Chhaganlal Gandhi, who was religiously
wearing the shikha, to do away with it. I feared that it might come
in the way of his public work and so, even at the risk of paining him,
I made him get rid of it.
I therefore made a clean breast
of the whole matter to the Swami and said:
'I will not wear the sacred
thread, for I see no necessity for it, when countless Hindus can go without
it and yet remain Hindus. Moreover, the sacred thread should be a symbol
of spiritual regeneration, presupposing a deliberate attempt on the part
of the wearer at a higher and purer life. I doubt whether in the present
state of Hinduism and of India, Hindus can vindicate the right to wear
a symbol charged with such a meaning. That right can come only after Hinduism
has purged itself of untouchability, has removed all distinctions of superiority
and inferiority, and [has] shed a host of other evils and shams that have
become rampant in it. My mind therefore rebels against the idea of wearing
the sacred thread. But I am sure your suggestion about the shikha
is worth considering. I once used to have it, and I discarded it from a
false sense of shame. And so I feel that I should start growing it again.
I shall discuss the matter with my comrades.'
The Swami did not appreciate
my position with regard to the sacred thread. The very reasons that seemed
to me to point to not wearing it, appeared to him to favour its wearing.
Even today my position remains about the same as it was at Hrishikesh.
So long as there are different religions, every one of them may need some
outward distinctive symbol. But when the symbol is made into a fetish and
an instrument of proving the superiority of one's religion over others',
it is fit only to be discarded. The sacred thread does not appear to me
today to be a means of uplifting Hinduism. I am therefore indifferent to
As for the shikha, cowardice
having been the reason for discarding it, after consultation with friends
I decided to re-grow it.
But to return to Lakshman Jhula.
I was charmed with the natural scenery about Hrishikesh and the Lakshman
Jhula, and bowed my head in reverence to our ancestors for their sense
of the beautiful in Nature, and for their foresight in investing beautiful
manifestations of nature with a religious significance.
But the way in which men were
using these beauty spots was far from giving me peace. As at Hardvar, so
at Hrishikesh, people dirtied the roads and the fair banks of the Ganges.
They did not even hesitate to desecrate the sacred water of the Ganges.
It filled me with agony to see people performing natural functions on the
thoroughfares and river banks, when they could easily have gone a little
farther away from public haunts.
Lakshman Jhula was, I saw, nothing
but an iron suspension bridge over the Ganges. I was told that originally
there had been a fine rope-bridge. But a philanthropic Marwadi got it into
his head to destroy the rope-bridge and erect an iron one at a heavy cost,
and then entrusted the keys to the Government! I am at a loss to say anything
about the rope-bridge as I have never seen it, but the iron bridge is entirely
out of place in such surroundings, and mars their beauty. The making over
of the keys of this pilgrims' bridge to the Government was too much even
for my loyalty of those days.
which one reaches after crossing the bridge was a wretched place, being
nothing but a number of shabby-looking sheds of galvanized iron sheets.
These, I was told, were made for sadhakas (aspirants). There were
hardly any living there at the moment. Those who were in the main building
gave one an unfavourable impression.
But the Hardvar experiences
proved for me to be of inestimable value. They helped me in no small way
to decide where I was to live, and what I was to do.